The word unfairness on a computer screen

Nepotism in the Workplace

May 1, 2006


Despite widespread censure of nepotism in-theory, there is strong anecdotal and statistical support for it being practiced widely in the workplace.

Sharon was convinced she’d gotten the job. She was qualified, had an impressive portfolio to back up her experience and excellent references. The interview went well, and the employer’s firm handshake and welcoming smile seemed auspicious. She waited expectantly for the offer of employment, only to receive a letter informing her that a different applicant had been hired. Two months later, she learned that the boss’s nephew had landed the position. Was this a case of preferential treatment—“who you know” being more important than “what you know?” And if so, how could Sharon jump a job queue fronted by family and friends?

In Canadian society, where fairness and merit are valued highly, nepotism, defined as appointing or hiring relatives to positions based on family status rather than on merit, is considered a way of circumventing the competitive process—of cheating. Problems include family members bringing family problems to work, excluding non-family employees, inappropriate sharing of confidential information, jealousy, scheduling difficulties when the family goes on vacation, and personal work problems spilling over onto other family employees. Favouritism and inequality are common complaints from non-family members.

Often, those hurt by nepotism don’t speak out. When a supervisor hires relatives, other employees see many cases of favouritism but may not speak up. This tension often leads to lower productivity, lower morale, and higher turnover as employees go elsewhere, where they believe they will be treated “fairly.” Even when supervisors try to not favour family members, other employees will question the motives and actions of the supervisor and family employee, leading to claims of conflict of interest, favouritism, or discrimination. Hiring relatives in the same work unit, even when complying with the provisions of existing nepotism policies, can limit flexibility and the ability to promote individuals in the future.

Nepotism is closely related to cronyism, which is favouritism shown to old friends without regard for their qualifications, or the improper appointment of friends and associates to positions of authority. Often the two are considered together under the term nepotism, (the umbrella definition which we will be referring to for the purposes of this article.) But, despite widespread censure of nepotism in-theory, there is strong anecdotal and statistical support for it being practiced widely in the workplace.

A 2004 poll conducted by inc.com, an online resource magazine for entrepreneurs, found that a whopping 48% of  readers believed that “connections” were the biggest factor in getting ahead in business. Only 25% of those polled felt that “doing good work” was the biggest predictor of success.

But, is there anything wrong with capitalizing on connections to get ahead? From the individual’s standpoint, the morality of nepotism is usually a relative (no pun intended) issue. Although we may not enjoy seeing others benefit from familial or friend relationships, we wouldn’t likely refuse an excellent job offer if it came from someone we knew.

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Furthermore, it may be inherent to our human nature to act with nepotism. According to Dr. Steve Stewart-Williams, Postdoctoral Fellow in Psychology, Neuroscience, and Behav­iour at McMaster Uni­versity in Hamilton, Ont., “The feelings and motivations that result in nepotism in the workplace are not just products of Western culture or socialization. Instead, they’re deep-seated aspects of human nature.”

We naturally want to help genetic relatives and mates and we form friendships and alliances with social relatives and friends because these relationships are mutually beneficial to our survival. It’s a fundamental case of “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” says Stewart-Williams.

In addition to a natural inclination to help those we know, there are some practicalities too. There’s an existing emotional connection that’s hard to trump, and having a month, a year or a lifetime acquaintance with someone makes him or her less of a gamble, especially considering the high costs associated with hiring and firing.

Is it any wonder then that networking, or developing and fostering relationships with others working in your field, has become critical for success in the Canadian job market?

Says Suzanne Kavanagh, Professor of Human Resources at George Brown College, Toronto, Ont., “If you were to ask most people how they got their job, they’d say networking. For me, I’ve never opened up a newspaper and said, I’m going to apply.”

So, how do applicants like Sharon, who may not know someone at the company, stand a chance in the hiring process? Well, pragmatically, they should be networking rather than blindly applying for jobs. That way, they can create more opportunities for themselves.

Granted, some employers may be drawn to hiring relatives and close friends over applicants who’ve arrived at the hiring table through networking, especially in family-owned and run businesses. But as Kavanagh points out, unless employers are determined to court problems, they will always “ensure that they are hiring the most qualified candidate. It could be a relative, but if they’re smart, they’re going to look at qualifications first.” As much as employers are influenced by their prior relationships with prospective hires, they are also influenced by their duties to their company, especially if their stake is large in ensuring their company’s success.

Of course, organizations must adhere to the applicable human rights legislation when hiring new employees, notes Kavanagh. Federally, that falls under the auspices of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. Provin­cially, each organization is bound by their provincial human rights regulations. In Ontario, section 24(1) of the Ontario Human Rights Code provides a defence for employers who institute an anti-nepotism policy.

Kavanagh states that as long as the organization’s policy is in keeping with the human rights legislation and is “clearly communicated” in writing to its employees, and the organization adheres to that policy, employers are free to hire family and friends, or institute anti-nepotism practices.

In general, the legal fallout to nepotism at work is scant. A judicious human resource department will ask prospective hires during the hiring process if they know someone in the company. Once individuals are hired, the caveat that most employers use is that there should be no direct reporting between relatives, spouses or long-term romantic partners. In this way, companies generally avoid any conflicts of interest.

On the other side of the fence, people can be discriminated against because they are related to a family member of someone who is employed. In 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Town of Brossard discriminated against Line Laurin because of her civil status when the town refused to hire her as a lifeguard because her mother was already employed by the municipality. The Court overturned the Court of Appeal ruling that the Town’s anti-nepotism policy did not offend the Quebec Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Are your workplace hiring practices fair? Use the “Nepotism check: Policy statement” below as an example to see how your company measures up.


Nepotism check:

Policy statement

In their policy statement, Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont., will not provide a preference nor discriminate in favour of, or against a member of an employee’s immediate family for part-time or full-time employment which is paid for by the University Operating or Ancillary funds or funds administered by the University. “The principle of merit shall prevail and shall be the deciding factor in the selection and appointment of successful candidates,” according to the policy.

The policy also states:

That employment of an employee’s immediate family shall not occur if employment would result in:

  • a) a new employee working in the same department/unit as an immediate family member;
  • b) a new employee reporting to the department/unit head or a supervisor who is an immediate family member.

In this policy, immediate family refers to husband, wife (includes common-law wife and common-law husband), son, daughter, brother, sister, mother, father, mother-in-law, father-in-law, sister-in-law, brother-in-law, daughter-in-law, son-in-law.

No exceptions may be permitted without the express written permission of the President, according to the policy.



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WRITTEN BY
Lorraine Aston

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